Is authenticity in food paramount?

Should your food be always authentic?
Should your food be always authentic?

If your dish is delicious, does it even matter if it’s authentic? To make a good Sushi, must a chef hail from Japan? When it comes to food, do you choose ‘taste’ or ‘authenticity’.

On a peaceful quiet night, while going through insta-stories on Instagram, I came across my friend’s story on a restaurant I have never been to, but, have heard polarizing reviews about. In my friend’s case, she did not like the food or the service of this highly talked about restaurant and expressed her dissatisfaction about how they were modifying the food. “The food was not the real deal and it was too Indianised for my liking,” she said.

Many a times I hear people talk in the same exact tone. This isn’t authentic Thai or this is Desi Italian while judging an eatery in Delhi. Even the queries on food groups go like ‘where can I find authentic pizzas like the ones you get in Napoli’? And I receive so many emails about restaurants that hard sell the fact they serve ‘authentic ___ cuisine’ at their outlet.

Now, I have started to believe, if someone started paying me for hearing – ‘but their food is not authentic’ or ‘we serve authentic____ food’ – I would have been a millionaire by now.

My question is: Who decides what is authentic?

Sarson Ka Saag, that my Mom makes at home, tastes much different from the one that my Bhua (Paternal Aunt) makes at her home in Punjab. Thus, it raises a pertinent question – who makes it in the most authentic way? Ask any expat chef if they get to make their food just the way they’ll make back home and chances are, that their answer will be, no. For food to be termed as authentic, the source or origin has to be genuine or credible. Furthermore, there has to be standardization of the recipe, technique and ingredients (brand or quality). Of course, a Delhi-based Parsi, cooking Dhansak, will have a greater chance to be close to authentic than me cooking it. However, I am told, just like Sarson Ka Saag, even Dhansak tastes different in every Parsi household.

In India, where food changes every few kilometers, it’ll be exhausting to be fastidious about authentic food. Much of our own food is born out of necessity, availability and geographical conditions. Sambar could be a fine example to understand that when Sambhaji, second emperor of the Maratha Empire, went to Tamil Nadu to meet Shahuji, he tried to recreate Amti (a Marathi Daal). However, due to unavailability of Kokum, Tamarind was used to make the dish. To honor the guest, the kitchen called this new dish, Sambar. Therefore, if there was no such innovation, we could never get Sambar or many such dishes, which were born like this.

And why just India, world-over some dishes were created out of similar situations. It’s no big secret that in Lamotte-Beuvron, France, a Tart Tatin, an upside down apple tart was accidently created. Stéphanie Tatin, who was overworked for the day was making a traditional apple tart when her apples were overcooked with butter and sugar. She placed a pastry tart shell on top and baked it in the same pan in an attempt to save it. The service was about to get over and she served the dish upside down. To her surprise, the dish was much loved by her guests and thus, a new dish was born.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t want my food to be authentic. I love eating local food everytime I travel and I make great efforts to get my share of authentic local cuisine wherever I travel. So much so, that sometimes I self-invite myself to a local’s house, just to be able to enjoy local authentic flavours. I will never expect a Mirchi Bada to be as authentic in Delhi as it is in Jodhpur. However, I understand that sometimes it’s the taste that matters. Besides, how do you know if the food is authentic if you haven’t travelled to the place it comes from? I’d rather enjoy a tasty dish than whine about its authenticity. I believe, as long as an eatery or a chef is not claiming to market their food as authentic, I’ll happily eat tasty food.

Mirchi Bada - Surya Namkeen- Jalori Gate
Mirchi Bada – Surya Namkeen – Jalori Gate

A fine case for this would be the food that one gets at Netaji Subhash Place in Delhi. I wouldn’t want any Italian to ever witness, leave alone taste, the pastas that are served there. They are far from being authentic, but damn they are yummy. Cheesy – greasy pink sauce pasta or Maggi Pasta, are some experiments that Dilliwalas just adore. Great inventions like Tandoori Momos, Butter Chicken Rolls, Macroni Samosa are more such examples of tasty food that go beyond the definition of legitimacy.

Every city localizes the food based on availability of ingredients, climate and the flavour palate of the consumers. Sometimes the economics come into play and the ones paying capacity becomes the driving force for deciding whether one can stick to authenticity or localization. A luxury hotel’s signature restaurant can always import ingredients from any part of the world, however a standalone might not have the resources.

However, today, standalones are pushing the boundaries and creating dishes out of unique ideas. Combining the traditional Indian spices and produce with modern techniques to churn out food, today we know as ‘Progressive’. We’re plating our food ‘Modern’, we have concepts like farm to table, we’re moving towards using local produce and we’re going regional. Such food, no matter where it comes from, is winning hearts worldwide.

Chili Caramel Fish - Cafe Diva Spiced
Chili Caramel Fish – Cafe Diva Spiced

Additionally, any dish that’s made with the right marriage of ingredients, technique and emotion would taste great. If you’re combining cuisines, then the fusion must be clever, soulful and the localization must carry a philosophy more than the shock value. One such dish I had recently was at Diva Spiced, where Chef Anumitra married various oriental flavours in one dish with local ingredients. Chili Caramel Fish – perfectly cooked filleted Soul fish with namjim (Thai sauce) with peanuts and lightly seared greens (bok choy). Served with fresh greens and lime, one can’t find it’s definitive ‘origin’ but boy it was yummy. 

Sometimes authenticity is overrated and innovativeness is underrated. Food is food and one must not forget that tasty food is that one needs to fill up your heart as much as your tummy.

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